Fla. School Must Face Suit Over COVID-19 Closure

By Carolina Bolado
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Law360 (November 30, 2020, 5:30 PM EST) -- A Florida federal judge on Sunday denied Lynn University's bid to dismiss a proposed class suit over its decision not to issue partial tuition and fee refunds after classes were moved online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

U.S. District Judge Rodolfo A. Ruiz II declined to dismiss breach of contract and other claims against Lynn, a private university in Boca Raton, Florida, because he said more factual development is necessary to clarify the terms and conditions of the relationship between the school and its students.

"At this early stage of the case — given that Florida law recognizes that the university/student contract may be implied in the university's publications — these factual allegations are sufficient to plead the existence of a valid contract for in-person education," the judge said.

The judge rejected the university's argument that lead plaintiff Raymond Gibson's breach of contract claim is barred because he continued to attend courses remotely and accepted credits. Judge Ruiz said it is unclear whether Gibson, an undergraduate student, knew he could reject the contract at any point during the spring semester.

"Here, the court will not draw the conclusion that plaintiff relinquished his contractual remedies solely based on allegations that he did not — in the face of an unpredictable, novel and rapidly evolving pandemic — quit school mid-semester and risk forfeiting his tuition," Judge Ruiz said.

Lynn suspended spring classes in mid-March and held its summer term completely online, according to the suit. The university offered a fractional refund of room and board, after first deducting certain fees, but it has not offered a credit or refund of tuition or fees, according to Gibson, who says he and his classmates have paid for access to activities and services that are no longer available.

He pointed to statements in the school's marketing materials that boast of the rich on-campus experience it offers, which goes beyond credit hours and diplomas.

Gibson, who says he is studying criminal justice and lives off campus in Boca Raton, is seeking to represent a class comprising all Florida residents who paid tuition for themselves or another person for in-person education at Lynn for the spring 2020 term.

The university disputes that there was any agreement for exclusively in-person education and pointed to provisions in the cited agreements that stated there would be no refunds in the event operations were suspended for reasons beyond the control of the university. Lynn has also argued that even if the court finds merits in Gibson's claims, they are not suitable for class treatment because they depend on several subjective, individualized issues and call for similarly subjective and speculative "loss of experience" damages.

An attorney for Lynn declined to comment. An attorney for Gibson did not respond to a request for comment.

Gibson is represented by Brenton Goodman, Matthew Schultz and Rebecca Timmons of Levin Papantonio Thomas Mitchell Rafferty & Proctor PA and Patrick F. Madden of Berger Montague.

Lynn University is represented by Allison Gluvna Folk, Leslie Lagomasino Baum, Stephanie Adler-Paindiris and Mendy Halberstam of Jackson Lewis PC.

The case is Gibson v. Lynn University Inc., case number 9:20-cv-81173, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

--Additional reporting by Nathan Hale. Editing by Daniel King.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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Case Information

Case Title

Gibson v. Lynn University, Inc.


Case Number

9:20-cv-81173

Court

Florida Southern

Nature of Suit

Contract: Other

Judge

Rodolfo A. Ruiz, II

Date Filed

July 17, 2020

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